Mortgage 101: Preapproved vs. prequalified

A couple gets a mortgage.
November 11, 2020 | Pam Leibfried

As you begin your home search by shopping for a mortgage, you could easily get confused about the difference between prequalified and preapproved for a mortgage.

Even long-term homeowners may be a bit rusty on the terms if they haven’t gone through the mortgage process in years, if not decades.

Although many buyers tend to use the terms interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same thing.

What does prequalified mean?

Getting prequalified for a mortgage means that your lender has provided an estimate of the amount you can afford to pay for a house based on information that you give them (credit score, income, assets and debts).

It is important to know that a prequalification is an informal process; it does not represent a commitment on the part of the lender to loan you the amount for which you prequalified.

Why? The prequalification analysis is just a rough estimate. It gives you a good idea of what you can afford and helps ensure you aren’t out looking at $500,000 houses when you can only qualify for a $300,000 mortgage. You can give your real estate agent a ballpark price range for selecting houses to show you while reassuring them that you’re a legitimate buyer. Plus, it can also help you understand the type of mortgage you may need such as a jumbo mortgage.

The prequalification process can take place over the phone or in person – and some lenders let you prequalify online. Once the lender has completed their initial assessment of your finances, they’ll provide you with a prequalification letter listing the estimated home value you can afford.

What does preapproved mean?

When you get preapproved for a mortgage, the process is more involved and more formal than the prequalification process, which could be good in a competitive market. Rather than basing their evaluation of your creditworthiness on information that you tell them, the lender runs a detailed credit check and asks for proof of your assets and income. Typically, you’ll be asked to provide copies of the following financial information:

  • Your most recent paystubs
  • W-2s for the previous two tax years
  • Two or three months of bank statements (checking, savings, certificates, etc.)

This documentation and the lender’s research of your credit history will enable them to be more confident about the likelihood your mortgage will ultimately be approved once you find your dream home. But it’s important to be aware that a preapproval does not guarantee the lender will definitely loan you the preapproved amount of money.

A mortgage preapproval is a more accurate estimate than a prequalification, but it is not a final mortgage approval. During the time between the preapproval and your closing date, your finances could change, there could be a problem with the appraisal or inspection, or interest rates could change, among other reasons. That’s why it helps to know what to look for before buying a home and how to get the best interest rate on your mortgage.

Preapproval letters also have a limited shelf life, so your preapproval could expire before you even find your new home. And, given that the average buyer spends a couple of months house-hunting before finding the home they want to buy, it’s not unlikely that an early preapproval will expire before you’re ready to buy. Once your preapproval expires, you’ll have to go through the entire process again.

It’s best to avoid repeated preapprovals for a couple of reasons. First, it’s sort of a hassle. And second, repeated loan preapprovals can negatively affect your credit score. If you need to score a high credit score, even a small dip from repeated preapprovals could bump you to a higher mortgage interest rate.

Which process does Alliant recommend?

At Alliant, we sort of split the difference between the typical prequalification vs. preapproval processes when you begin to look at mortgages. We do a prequalification (the quicker, simpler process), but our prequalification includes a full mortgage application and a credit inquiry. Alliant also does an initial underwriting review to get a good picture of your financial situation.

We’ll ask you about your income and savings, too, but we won’t require you to provide us with documentation of them until after you’ve actually found a home.

Running the credit check as part of the prequalification has advantages vs. waiting until you’ve signed a contract. For example, it gives you more time to address any issues or mistakes on your credit report before you buy. And fixing those issues before finalizing your mortgage may even qualify you for a lower interest rate.

And that leads me to one of the most critical pieces of advice we can give to someone who is looking to buy a home: Check your credit report thoroughly. Knowing that your credit is in order will make the entire mortgage process go much more smoothly.

Here are some more helpful mortgage tips:

Pam Leibfried is a marketing content specialist whose love of words led to a writing and editing career. After a brief stint teaching English, she transitioned to corporate communications and spent 20 years at The Nielsen Company before joining Alliant’s content development team. Early in her work life, Pam’s friend Matt explained the benefits of a 401(k) and her dad encouraged her to start a Roth IRA. Their good counsel prompted her to prioritize retirement savings, which just might enable her to retire early so she can read more and live out the slogan on her fave T-shirt:  “I have a retirement plan: I plan on quilting.”   

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